In Sheldon Adelson’s hometown, Jews are angry about the presidential election.
That contrasts with Jews in the swing states of Florida and Ohio, who will vote despairingly in this year’s race. In Las Vegas, they’ll storm the polls. Audiences at community-sponsored political events here boo heartily. Partisan wars split synagogue listservs. Political lawn signs disappear in Jewish neighborhoods.
Some of the passion here is over the economy. But in the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country, the Jewish conversation is focused strikingly on Israel.
At the local Jewish Community Center one morning, a current events discussion group spent an hour talking politics and bruising each other’s feelings. One 78-year-old said that President Obama “has disdain for Israel.” A 70-year-old accused Obama’s Jewish critics of racism and later stormed out in a huff.
The Israel focus is partly the work of Adelson, the casino billionaire who has pledged to spend up to $100 million backing Republicans this cycle. Adelson-funded political ads asking Jews to turn away from Obama, in part over his Israel policies, run incessantly on local TV.
Democrats, too, are playing up the Israel issue. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Nevada, has emphasized her hard-line Israel credentials, drawing distinctions between herself and President Obama.
In other swing states, Jews voice resignation toward this year’s presidential race amid a feeling that neither outcome will fix a broken system. But the Jewish political scene in Nevada today feels like something older, closer to Florida’s Palm Beach County in 2008, where Israel defined the election and communal tensions were high.
“I personally cannot wait for it to be over,” said Rabbi Felipe Goodman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom, Las Vegas’s oldest synagogue.
Berkley was fighting the crowd at an evening forum at Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation in a Las Vegas suburb.
If anyone knows how to win Nevada’s Jewish votes, it’s Berkley. First elected to Congress in 1999, she previously worked as an attorney for Adelson. The two split acrimoniously, reportedly in a dispute over labor issues, and Adelson now does what he can to spoil her electoral hopes. He’s failed so far.
The foes do agree on Israel. Both are hawkish, and neither spends much time talking about a two-state solution. According to Shea Harlig, the city’s first Chabad rabbi, Adelson admitted to him during a telephone call that Berkley is good for Israel, though he disagrees with her on everything else.
The trouble for Berkley at Ner Tamid started when the forum’s moderator, Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston, read an audience-submitted question: Why doesn’t Obama consider Iran an existential threat? Berkley’s initial opposition to the premise of the question was met with boos. Ralston began to quiet the audience.
“I can handle this, Jon,” Berkley said, before coming back with a hawkish critique of Obama’s Israel policy that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the talking points of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “I disagreed with his settlement policy,” Berkley said, referring to the Obama administration’s push for a freeze in settlement construction in 2009. “Nobody’s going to tell me that building apartment buildings in east Jerusalem is an impediment to peace.”
Berkley went on to praise Obama’s military aid to Israel, but first she criticized the president’s 2011 call at an AIPAC conference for Israel and the Palestinians to return to the 1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps — a statement that the president’s Democratic Jewish backers are usually quick to defend. “I thought he made the statement at the absolute wrong time, because all the Arabs heard was going back to 1967 borders, not one of them heard the swaps,” Berkley said, “So don’t boo me.”
From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, Las Vegas had one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the country. The city grew from 67,000 Jews in 1995 to 89,000 in 2005. The four or five synagogues the city had in the early 1990s multiplied to more than two dozen.
At the same time, Las Vegas itself was sprawling. In thrall to an epic building boom, construction stretched outward toward the surrounding mountains. Developers laid out gated communities in desert plots that turned suburban as the city expanded to envelop the new neighborhoods.
In 2008, it all stopped. Construction jobs vanished. Building projects froze in place. Even today, half laid-out developments are still visible from the air: flattened home sites cleared, waiting for buildings that were never built.
One of those half-finished developments belonged to Bob Unger, a real estate developer who is president of Congregation Ner Tamid, a major Reform synagogue in Las Vegas. Unger said he stopped construction partway through a massive residential development project.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to a construction boom,” Unger said.
Unemployment is worse here than anywhere else in the country. Even as nationwide unemployment rates have begun to come back, joblessness in Las Vegas is stubbornly high. The local unemployment rate is currently 12.3%, tied for the worst metropolitan area in the United States.
Goodman, the Beth Sholom rabbi, said that congregants send him résumés all the time, hoping he can find them jobs. He usually can’t. The synagogue has given away nearly $30,000 in emergency relief to members. Harlig said that one former donor to the Chabad day school now needs a scholarship for his children.
Still, talking to Jews here, you miss the desperation heard in other hard-hit Jewish communities. People talk of rebound, of the city’s resilience. Maybe it’s that the worst-affected Jews have moved away. Maybe it’s that there’s the culture here of putting on a brave face, as one rabbi suggested. Or maybe it’s just a slow adjustment to a new normal.
“We’re learning to live with the adversity,” said Elliot Karp, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.
It’s been a rough transition. This newly chastened Jewish community has found that its rapid growth in the years before the boom left it on shaky footing from which to launch a rebound. During the boom, the Jews sprawled along with the city. There’s no single Jewish neighborhood here. There are some synagogues in the suburb of Summerlin, in the city’s northwest, and others in the suburb of Henderson, 40 minutes to the southeast. There’s no permanent JCC building. Rabbis complain about exceptionally low affiliation rates.
Even in reasonably dense Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish leaders say it’s hard to feel a sense of community.
“It can be quite a tough city,” said Rabbi Malcolm Cohen, who leads Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Summerlin. Cohen moved here from England three years ago. “Literally there are walls between people,” he said, referring to the gated communities where many Jews live.
In the boom years, Jewish communal planning was stymied as donors and officials fought over whether new communal facilities should be built closer to the communities on the east or west side of town. One abandoned plan sits on the floor across from Karp’s heavy wood desk at the Las Vegas Jewish Federation’s headquarters in a drab office park. Karp arrived from Cincinnati in 2008, just as the recession was taking hold. These plans have been sitting around since long before then.
The full-color drawings of the proposed Jewish community center speak to a past era of easy money and boundless construction. Text on the extravagantly rendered conceptual master plan point to the facets of the never-built site: a Yiddish center, an Israel center, an art gallery and a teen drop-in center.
The money was there; the consensus was not. “Nothing got built,” Karp said, fiddling with an etrog leftover from Sukkot.
Now Karp is working on a new community center, but it’s not clear how he plans to afford it. In 2010, the federation’s annual campaign brought in just $1.1 million — a quarter of what the group was raising before the crash. The federation did a bit better this year, thanks in large part to a matching grant from Adelson.
Struggling Jewish communal executives have their hopes pegged on Adelson’s beneficence. The Las Vegas JCC now occupies a set of trailers in a synagogue parking lot. The synagogue is going to start construction on a new building in the parking lot this spring, and Neil Popish, the JCC’s executive director, doesn’t know where he’ll go. He does, however, have a plan: Pitch Adelson.
“We’re going through a strategic planning process right now,” Popish said. “We’ll go to [Adelson] with our plans… and he will step up, I’m sure.”
On stage at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Avraham Burg was rubbing his head, his face in his hands. The dovish former speaker of the Israeli Knesset was having a hard time — both with his co-panelist, conservative radio host Dennis Prager, and with the crowd.
Prager, to cheers from the audience, charged Burg with “libel” for claiming that Christian evangelicals are anti-democratic. Later, when Burg spoke prospectively about something Obama might do in a second term, the crowd jeered. When in response he told the audience that 70% of American Jews would vote for Obama, they hooted.
Burg joked that the evening had proved tougher than being speaker of the Knesset.
In the lobby after the event, Jewish audience members described their opposition to Obama. “He wants to bring Kenyan anti-colonialist ideas to the U.S.,” said Leslie Dunn, 72. “He does not like the West,” added his wife, Joan Dunn, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter.
Another audience member, Marty Paz, 33, attributed some of the anti-Obama sentiment to Adelson’s influence. “I don’t think he imposes his views on our Jewish community, but everyone knows his opinions,” Paz said, likening Adelson’s role as a driver of opinion among Las Vegas’s Jews to that of a high-powered lobbyist.
“He spends his money, he supports us — which does a world of good,” Paz said. “But I’m sure it influences members of our community.”
The Venetian is a Disney version of a European vacation. A hotel and conference center dressed up with elaborate ceiling frescoes and massive chandeliers, the Venetian is to its seedier neighbors on the Las Vegas Strip what the Fontainebleau was to Grossinger’s. Neither is classy, but the Venetian has better production values.
There’s an indoor Grand Canal, with gondoliers singing arias. The domed ceiling of the hotel lobby is supposed to remind you of something by Michelangelo. On the casino floor, the go-go dancers are relatively clothed and the column heads are surprisingly intricate.
This 8,000-room hotel is Adelson’s flagship and corporate headquarters, and the closest Las Vegas’s Jewish community has to a central address.
The casino’s ballrooms host local dinners for AIPAC, as well as federation fundraisers. The annual Israel Independence Day celebration draws thousands here every year. In 1999, Beth Sholom canceled a dinner planned for here after the honoree, Mayor Oscar Goodman, refused to cross a picket line to attend. Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Goodman moved the event, sparking a legendary fight with Adelson that is still gossiped about today.
The building may be the seat of Adelson’s power, but it’s not the only one he built in this city. Adelson is the architect of Las Vegas’s Jewish community. His name is on the new Jewish day school and the central Chabad synagogue. His picture is on the shelf of the executive director of the local Jewish federation.
Programs he favors, like the day school named after him, sit on extravagantly landscaped campuses, the buildings fronted with Jerusalem stone. Programs he hasn’t yet favored, like the JCC, bide time in a trailer in a synagogue parking lot.
Adelson’s dual philanthropic and political roles have complicated things in Las Vegas this election cycle. For Jews here, his most visible political spending has been the RJC’s television advertisements, which play relentlessly. In the ads, Jewish voters explain why they’re voting for Romney in 2012. The ads have raised passions.
“I thought putting every Jew in the same basket was extremely anti-Semitic,” said Mark Snyder, 65, moderator of the JCC’s weekly current events discussion group. “It made me cringe.”
Others praised the ads, particularly one featuring Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus. “I really enjoy the Republican Jewish Coalition,” said Larry Schonberg, 69, a participant in Snyder’s group. “I enjoy their ads on television.”
Criticism of Adelson here is often delivered by people who benefit directly from his philanthropy and who couch their critiques in praise of his charitable work.
“You can’t buy a president. I think it’s wrong,” said Susan Rhodes, 63. Her 9-year-old grandson, Nathan, used to attend Adelson’s day school.
“He’s pitting Jew against Jew,” complained Don Margolis, 80, who retired here from California. Still, Margolis said, “He does a lot of good work.”
Others are more concerned about the role of Adelson’s philanthropy, which some worry has warped communal expectations.
“I tremendously respect the Jewish philanthropy that Sheldon Adelson is engaged in,” Beth Sholom’s Goodman said. “I’m concerned that people stop stepping up to the plate — they leave it all up to him. They’re all waiting for only him to do something. And the community as a whole has the responsibility to build up the community.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter@joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.